Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Carretera Austral, Chile (1 week)

When you are in the south of Patagonia and you want to go north, you have one of two road choices: either the Ruta 40 through Argentina or the Carretera Austral through Chile. Both are long dirt roads. The Ruta 40 is somewhat easier to get on with more regular and cush buses and it being touted as a road of outpost towns and isolation. If you want real isolation, though, try the Carretera. It is a stunningly beautiful road trip. You travel through lush ´cold rainforest´of thick bamboo groves, tall trees with vines hanging down, the massive leaves of the Gunnera (called Nalca here), and ferns that tower over your head. The road is through valleys between tall mountains with waterfalls and many rainbows. Also there is a lot of rain.

We started our journey where we crossed back into Chile, the town of Chile Chico. Not too much to mention here, but it was much warmer than El Chalten so we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the banks of the lake on which it is situated. A ferry ride across the lake got us on a 2-hour minibus to Coyhaique, the biggest city in the area. Half of all the people that live in the Carretera area live in Coyhaique. At first we tried to rent a car since there were four of us to do the Carretera, but discovered it is much cheaper to take minibuses. Problem is that they only run every few days, so we had to stay longer in Coyhaique than we had wanted. The highlight of this area was a day hike in the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, a taxi ride just outside of town. Packed a lunch and learned a little with some interpretive signage.

Our first daytime minibus voyage on the road took us to Puyuhuapi. Since I managed to snag one of the front seats, and the driver was happy to plug in my MP3 player to the radio, it was really great! To the sounds of Jack Johnson, Moby and Madonna, we motored along through rain, road construction, washed out parts of road, and much natural beauty. In our guide book for Chile, there is a story about a group of people that were hiking in the bush around here and were a mere 2km. from the Carretera, could even hear cars on it. It says that it took them 3 full days to make that 2km. distance. I did not believe the story until I saw it with my own eyes. The forest is SO dense. The bamboo and huge fallen trees all make for a lot of unexplorable area.

Puyuhuapi was settled by Germans, but the only sign of them now are some black and white photos around town. The town is tiny and very wet. We had read about some 5-star thermal pool resort a boat ride out of town on an isolated peninsula, but figured the price would be out of sight. We called and since we made the off-season by a few days, and the four of us could share a cabana, it wasn´t too bad. So... let the pampering begin. The spa was definitely a well-worth splurge for us. In fact, there were some other backpackers that arrived with us, and we were a sight to see. There were the four of us, two Israeli guys, and a couple from France, Nadia and Romain. Since we all caught the boat over together, we all arrived on the resort´s dock together, dirty and with 2 backpacks each, muddy boots, the works! You could sense the anticipation of a night´s stay of luxury in the air and see it on all of our grinning faces.

We were going to stay 1 night, but stayed 2 because it was so nice. I got a facial, the others got massages, and we soaked in the 3 outdoor pools whenever we could. Since they´re open 24 hours, that also meant at night under the stars. One of the pools was right next to the ocean, so we would dip in the ocean and run back to the hot pool. At night, we ate a fancy ´tasting menu´which started with octopus sashimi and moved on to crustacean de la mer (a fancy crab cake), squash soup, a steak with brie and pesto, and 3 small deserts. Needless to say, we felt very special! Mornings were a buffet breakfast (a nice break from your standard Chilean breakfast of bread and instant coffee). Second day, Laura and I signed up for guided hike in the Quelat National Park. Our guide, Cristiàn from Chile, taught us a lot about the flora and fauna of the area. We hiked to a glacier through lush rainforest. In the afternoon Laura and I took a kayak out to explore the shores of the area. It was a holiday from our holiday, to be sure.

Boat back to Puyuhuapi and onwards on a minibus north to Villa Santa Lucia, a tiny village on the Carretera. The picture of Jesus on the front door of the first hospedaje we ventured into, and then the shrine in the second one we chose, were the first signs that this is a very religious community. An evening walk on the dirt roads was to the sound of voices singing in the church. We had stopped here as a junction to head east to Futaleufu, a big rafting town. Next morning, 8 of us were going to hitchike to the Fu, but since there were so many of us, the hospedaje owners drove us in their van.

The drive to Futaleufu was breathtaking, especially once we started following the river. The famous Futaleufu river has been rated the #1 in the world river for rafting on. It´s all class 4 and 5 rapids. The water is this clear aquamarine colour and the river cuts through lush steep mountains. We´re not really that big into rafting, but wanted to check out the beautiful landscape, and anyway it was on the way back to Argentina. Turns out it is a good thing we are not into rafting, because we missed the rafting season by a mere 2 weeks and all of the companies but 1 have shut down. We´ve come to learn that the summer season in Patagonia is short and when it´s over, it really is over. While it´s nice that there aren´t many tourists around, it does make getting around and doing things require some patience.


At 3:32 PM, Anonymous cj said...

The picture of you guys in your robes outside reminds me of the onsen village Kurakawa, Japan. Hot springs/tubs and walking around in robes (inside and outside) is the ultimate way to relax! MMmmm...and the food sounds so good.


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